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“You Shame Me”: Unpacking the Muslim Bad Dad

Three Men In White

Why do so many movies feature the ‘Bad Dad’ trope? From the epic battles of Darth Vader and Luke Skywalker to the complexity of Michael Corleone, not wanting to be like his father Don Vito. When it comes to Muslims the narrative shifts to tradition and honour. 

Valerie Grove compares the films Mooz-Lum and David. 

These two films have several commonalities. Both films are American made, both were released in 2011 and both are directorial debuts. Primarily, however, they both feature the stereotypical antagonist of the ‘bad’ Muslim dad to tell stories of diaspora and intergenerational conflict.  

Mooz-Lum | 2011

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Mooz-Lum was both written and directed by Qasim Basir. Although receiving largely favourable reviews at the time it is not subtle in its messaging nor in the presentation of the numerous issues covered, and sometimes verges on caricature with both characters and plot. The film was released a decade after 9-11 and was one of the first mainstream releases to tackle the impact of that event on Muslim Americans. However there is so much more going on in this story. Looking at it another decade on it is quite remarkable to see the range of things Qasim Bashir manages to pack into the film and just how much the actors give to their performances. 

The opening scene of the film sees protagonist Tariq leave home to start college. As he drives away there is a clever shock that immediately sets the parameters of the story that is about to unfold. The film is then set mostly at the college while flashbacks fill in Tariq’s character and his relationship with his family. 

Tariq’s ‘bad’ Dad so fears losing his children, and them losing their faith, that he embarks on a single- minded path to make his son a ‘good’ Muslim by sending him to a residential madrassa. Completely ignoring his wife’s objections, this fatal insecurity not only leads him to place complete trust in the school but to sacrifice his marriage and his family life in the process too. This gives a structure for a sometimes harrowing study in family dynamics, and the tensions, both inherent and universal, between acknowledging emotional needs and maintaining emotional control. 

Joseph Campbell’s “The Hero’s Journey” is the story template that details the narrative arc of many Hollywood films.

One stage is the “Atonement with the Father/Abyss” which means that the hero must have a bad relationship with his dad from the start, so he can save their relationship.

In some respects, the specifics of this situation are not actually the main story that Qasim Bashir is trying to tell. He is empathetically and sensitively dealing with a universal of childhood trauma and the emotional and psychological impact of that trauma in adult life. What is hidden, what is suppressed and how that mutates into anger, confusion and rejection of everything associated with that trauma. This is all set against the unfolding story of Tariq navigating his own identity in the college environment and the wider backdrop of both subtle and blatant racism in the institution itself. Already there are several huge narratives here and we haven’t even got to 9-11 yet.

As a first feature, Mooz-Lum is a hugely ambitious project in which the director took his chances and threw in as many interrelated issues as possible, perhaps hoping that each of them could be developed and explored in more detail by others. The greatest strength of this film, however, is the profound emotional honesty of performances that engender bonds of sympathy with all the key characters. This makes the film a very moving and relatable experience for the viewer, and perhaps for that reason alone it deserves another watch. 

David | 2011

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While Daud also pitches the authoritarian Dad as the antagonist to set out the story, the tone and focus of this film couldn’t be more different. Daud is a 10/11 year old boy with responsibilities way beyond his years. As the son of the imam of the local mosque, he teaches Quran to kids even younger than him, tidies up around the mosque, and keeps an eye on his little sister. Daud’s Dad takes all this for granted and seems to see his son as an extension of his own role in the community rather than a person in his own right. 

Daud is a quiet and observant child who does what is expected of him but also seems to be observing his own situation and the situation in his immediate family and community with a thoughtful but lonely detachment. A huge change occurs in his life when he finds a lost Torah and, in the process of trying to return it, becomes an accidental part of a yeshiva summer study group. For the first time he mixes freely with boys of his own age and finds friendship. Ultimately he is exposed to another way of life, not just that of the neighbouring Jewish community but also of average American kids. Obviously this cannot last, and the devastation caused to Daud by the loss of this friendship is the catalyst for his Dad to step outside of his role as a community leader in order to better understand his responsibilities as a father. In Mooz-lum it takes the catalyst of 9-11; but both fathers ultimately reach a degree of self-recognition by allowing themselves to learn from their sons. 

There are several underlying themes that orbit gently around Daud’s beautiful and entirely believable performance, most implicit rather than stated: people who have and maintain their faith and traditions have a lot more in common than not, and being part of a diaspora is another commonality that contributes to a commonality of experience. 

However, what this film shows is that diaspora communities are perhaps only as comfortable as the time they have had to adjust, and the communities portrayed here are at very different stages in this journey. What Daud sees in the yeshiva is an established, confident and relaxed community that seems able to both embrace its history and traditions and pass them seamlessly and comfortably down through the generations. As a consequence there seems no inherent conflict between that identity and being an American.

Daud’s own community is evidently more recently established, and as imam his father has a responsibility to the wider community that restricts the time and energy he has to engage and respond to his own family’s realities. Although that is partly the reason he seems like a ‘bad’ Dad, it is also the fact that we don’t get to know him more fully. Given that the majority of this film is about Daud’s accidental breaking away into another community, there is not much time for a back story about his father. The ‘bad’ Dad presented in Mooz-lum suffers in much the same way. 

One of the greatest achievements of this film, however, is how director, Joel Fendelman, uses the story to weave between the physical settings of each community. These are not professional sets with professional actors, they are real places with real people living real lives. You become immersed in those atmospheres by the sounds, the signs on the street and the leisurely daily interactions of the people. It’s almost like being there. 

A decade on those streets probably haven’t changed that much, but perhaps in some ways the stories have. 

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